Thursday, September 19, 2019

Cursing Our Way to Good

I don’t know very much Yiddish except a few words like shayna punim of which my unbiased grandmother believed I exhibited, chutzpah of which I have in apparent abundance and of course tuchus of which I have one. Recently, I learned a few more phrases and although I still have not achieved sufficient linguistic mastery, I have become enchanted with the language of my forebears. Yiddish is an extraordinarily colorful language filled with many creative ways to curse.

Here are but a few:
All problems I have in my heart, should go to his head.
God should visit upon him the best of the Ten Plagues.
He should have a large store, and whatever people ask for he shouldn’t have, and what he does have shouldn’t be requested.
His luck should be as bright as a new moon.
Your stomach will rumble so badly, you will think it was a Purim noisemaker.
And of course the well-known: “Go take a dump in the ocean.” The Yiddish is actually even more unseemly, but I will leave that to your imagination. Clearly this phrase is akin to the less colorful English curse, “Go jump in a lake” and means, “Get lost.”

Still, I never understood why jumping in a lake, or the ocean for that matter, is a curse. I love the water. Perhaps our Yiddish forebears were not very good swimmers and they could imagine nothing worse than being lost in the immense ocean. Then again, it could be because the vastness of lakes and oceans renders the person insignificant. It is as if to say, “Get away from me. You mean nothing to me. You are as insignificant as a small speck in the vast ocean.”

Curses reveal so much about a culture. Take note of the understanding of Jewish tradition found in these Yiddish phrases. The empty night sky of a new moon reminds us that our tradition marks the holidays by the moon. The boisterous sounds of Purim celebrations must be embedded in the Jewish heart. Cursing elucidates a culture.

It reveals hidden secrets. Women, who were relegated to traditional roles in shtetl life, perhaps gained the last word. They said in effect, “Let all the worries I carry, whether or not, for example, our children and friends will have food this coming Shabbat find their way into the mind of that guy who studies and prays all day and night.”

This week the Torah confronts us with a litany of curses. If the people obey God’s commands they are promised blessings. These are succinct and to the point. If not, they are cursed:
May the Lord strike you with consumption, fever, and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew; they shall hound you until you perish. The skies above your head shall be copper and the earth under you iron. The Lord will make the rain of your land dust, and sand shall drop on you from the sky, until you are wiped out. (Deuteronomy 28)
The curses continue in inordinate detail, promising boil-scars, itches and hemorrhoids. The intention is clear. If the people do not follow God’s commands then they will be struck with what they most fear. Their crops will not thrive. They will rot as soon as they are planted. Their bodies will be plagued by disease. They will find no relief from their most bothersome symptoms. It hearkens to “God should visit upon him the best of the Ten Plagues.” Again the cursing is colorful and vivid. Little is left to the imagination.

Usually when chanting these verses the Torah reader does so in a quiet voice so as to deemphasize the curses. We say in effect, “Let us not say out loud what can befall us.” I wish instead to think about what all this color, and imagination, reveals. The Torah’s curses serve to accentuate the blessings. They are the dark contrast that reveal the promise.

Without such a bold, and imaginative, list we might remain unaware of the possibility to achieve good. Likewise, Yiddish provides a plethora of terms for underachievers. “He is such a schlemiel” comes to mind. Why? So as to remind us that failing to do good is but one slip up away. The line between success and failure is but one small curse away—and this is always within our reach. Doing good is our most important goal.

And then I remember that I know at least one more Yiddish word. And it is the crowning goal of the Yiddish language. It is what all these curses, as well as the many terms for underachievers, point towards. And that word is mensch. I long to hear my grandmother say, “You’re such a mensch.”

The great Yiddish writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer once joked, “What a strange power there is in clothing.” But he also added: “Kindness, I’ve discovered, is everything in life.”

Be a good person. Be a mensch. The rest is commentary—and of course a measure of imagination and humor can help lead us there.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Eighteen Years Later

What follows is Friday evening's sermon on the occasion of the eighteenth anniversary of 9-11.

On Wednesday Susie and I dropped Ari off at JFK for the beginning of his year long journey. Aside from the emotions of seeing our son off as he begins his travels around the world, it occurred to me how ordinary this occasion was. I am not speaking of course about Ari backpacking to as yet unknown destinations and our expectations that we will soon receive random texts at some odd time of day and night saying something like, “Leaving Singapore, heading to Hanoi.” Or, “Decided to stay longer in Palermo.” I am instead speaking about how ordinary Wednesday, September 11, 2019 seemed. The airport provided its usual frustrations with all its boisterous honking and jockeying for a spot to drop him off. We hit traffic on the way home. I looked up when we were stopped on the Belt Parkway to see a large plane making a slow leftward turn on its approach to the airport.

Eighteen years ago I could not have imagined such a moment. I can still see the empty, blue skies over our backyard, after we had collected our then five and seven year olds from school. “Can we let them play outside?” Susie and I debated. I looked up from our backyard, and marveled at the sky’s blueness and its emptiness, save the occasional military helicopters loudly hurtling towards Manhattan. “We can’t keep them locked inside,” we finally decided. And then we hurried them in and out as we struggled to make up our minds over and over again. Everything stopped on that day. We felt as if it might forever stop.

Ten years ago we would have protested the day Ari decided to begin his journey. “Wait until Thursday to leave,” we might have said. This year I could not get over how ordinary and routine the day seemed. Of course I cried all over again as I tuned into the countless services, and most especially the service at the 9-11 memorial. I watched with renewed pain the remembrances held throughout the country, and even the one held in Israel. Still I did what I always do on any given Wednesday. It seemed like any other September day. I am not saying of course that the day 9-11 is not among our most wrenching and sacrosanct days. Americans attended services, watched any number of memorials on TV, or not so great made for TV movies. On Wednesday we reacquainted ourselves with the pained stories of those lost and those who died trying to save others. I think of the firefighters running up those stairs, sensing they might never walk down. Their photographs arrayed in The New York Times are still etched in my thoughts; they are forever before my eyes. I think of all those rescue workers, police officers, construction workers and volunteers who rushed to Ground Zero to help but now, years later, are plagued with unimaginable health consequences.

And yet, on this past Wednesday most of us went about our day like any other Wednesday in September.

Some things return to normal. We go to work. We go out to dinners. We go into the city for the theatre. There were days back then when I never could have imagined that someone could create, or would create, the most beautiful and moving show about that dark day. And, until this past Sunday I refused to go see Come from Away. We go to the beach. We go to the airport. And then again, there were days back then when we thought that going to the airport might never again be possible. We laugh. We sing. We cry—but no longer only about that Tuesday from eighteen years ago. Everything has not stopped.

And some things are never again the same. We are still afraid. We are afraid of travel. Before that day there was no place on earth beyond the travel destinations of our American can do attitude. Now we take those State Department Travel warnings seriously. Fear is lodged in our American hearts. We hesitate. Everything has not stopped, but there is a pause in our step, a hesitation in our decision making. “Is it safe?” we ask over and over again. “There are so many people there. It might not be safe to go watch the parade,” we think. We hesitate to meet new people. It is easier to stick with the friends we know. We pause before opening our hearts to strangers. “They could be…you know…” we think, sometimes quietly and sometimes not so quietly.

The hope that was the defining characteristic of America, the hope that inspired my grandparents to traverse the ocean and build a life here for themselves, their children, grandchildren, and now great grandchildren, is now overwhelmed by fear. Now our children openly say what would have been blasphemy to my grandparent’s generation, “Is this country really the best country in the world?”

Eighteen years later, I am not sure how to help banish this fear. But I have learned this. Fear is a matter of the heart. It has nothing to do with metal detectors, armed guards and bomb sniffing dogs. There can never be 100% safety and security. Not when riding a bicycle, driving in a car, flying in an airplane or walking on the sidewalk. There is no place on earth that is not touched by suffering and pain, violence and terrorism. We cannot run. We cannot hide. Eighteen years ago, we were naïve. We did not know then what we know now. That recognition, that knowing, that painful experience has made us fearful and afraid. But the heart is not our master. It does not rule our lives. We can control the heart. We can master our feelings and most especially our fears. As the Psalmist said, “Though they might surround me, my heart shall not fear. Though war should rise against me, even then I will be confident.” (Psalm 27)

And so we can banish the terror; we can rid our hearts of fear. How? By not stopping. By not pausing. By at the very least, not hesitating so much and so often. By approaching the world, and other people, with more hope. By seeing in others the possibility for new insights and new loves. By looking to the world, and its many destinations, not just as potential enemies who may very well be arrayed against us, but as beacons for discovering some new truths. We must once again open our hearts to the world's nuances. We must no longer divide the world into us and them.

How do we banish fear? By not stopping. By not pausing. By not hesitating. Perhaps that answer was only just discovered this past Wednesday. Perhaps that answer can only begin to be discovered eighteen years later. This truth might still be found. It is found in going about our day like it was just another Wednesday in September. That is the most important thing we can do, and perhaps even the bravest thing we can do. We can push fear aside.

Fear need not rule our hearts.


Thursday, September 12, 2019

Let Them Eat Grapes

Years ago when hiking through Israel, my guide would sometimes take a detour through a field. There she would reach up and take an orange from a tree, immediately peel off its skin and then eat it. I protested. “This is not your field. These oranges are not yours to take.” She would then correct my understanding. “Our Bible permits it.”

And the Torah proclaims: “When you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat as many grapes as you want, until you are full, but you must not put any in your vessel.” (Deuteronomy 25)

Our Bible has a different understanding of ownership. We do not own the land. The earth belongs to God and we are but tenants. So when I look to my backyard, the trees, and vines, might very well be mine but the food they produce is not just for my benefit.

The Torah makes clear. If you are hungry you can take the fruit from a tree. Even though the farmer has expended all the effort, and expense, to grow and nurture the tree, its fruit must be shared. Still you can only take a little bit, only enough to satiate your hunger. You may not take so much that you can fill a basket so that you are then able to sell the fruit in the market. That would be stealing.

And stealing is forbidden. Sharing is demanded.

While very few of us have vineyards or even know how to grow grapes, or even for that matter have fruit trees, imagine how different the world might be if we shared some fruit with our neighbors.

I dream.

And then I recall the fruit that spoils in my refrigerator, and the bag of half eaten grapes that makes its way into our garbage pail. I discard my dreams.

I must dream. I imagine. A world where all it takes for no one to know hunger is for each of us to offer one or two grapes here or there is within reach.

Sharing is commanded.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

The Word is Our Ruler

I spend my days trying to uncover contemporary meaning in the weekly Torah reading. I pour over the Bible’s words to discover modern resonance.

This week I unfurled our sacred scroll and revealed these words:
When the king is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Torah written for him…. Let it remain with him and let him read it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Torah... Thus, he will not act arrogantly toward his fellows or deviate from the instruction to the right or left… (Deuteronomy 17)
When Saul is anointed the first king of Israel, God acquiesces to the people’s desire to be like all other nations. Appointing earthly rulers is a compromise. The Torah reminds us. Rulers must always remember that they serve a higher authority, that they serve the rules and laws given to prior generations.

Even the greatest king of Israel, David, is no greater than God’s Torah. Let’s take but one example. First, he commits adultery with Bathsheba. Then David has her husband, and loyal soldier, Uriah murdered. The prophet Nathan rebukes the king, reminding him that he is not above the law. Murder and adultery are forbidden for everyone—even the king.

In many other cultures, both then and now, such rebuke would be dismissed. And the prophet, or protester, would be jailed or killed. And herein lies David’s uniqueness, and perhaps his greatness. He repents. He admits his error. He atones for his sin. David bows to the law.

The Torah is our ruler. The law is our king.

Often when I take our students into the sanctuary, I open the Ark to show them our beautiful Torah scrolls. We discuss the colored robes that cover the scrolls. I point out the shiny silver crowns and breastplates that adorn them. I ask the students, “Who else wears a crown?” And they respond, “A king or a queen.” “Exactly,” I say.

Then I remind them that this is exactly Judaism’s most important teaching. We look up to the Torah as one might look up to a queen or king. The chapters and verses in these scrolls, the words inscribed by centuries of meaning, are what we worship.

One might think that such veneration, especially that of an ancient calligraphed scroll, means we live in the past. We do not. We live in the present but are nurtured by ancient words.

Yesterday’s words inform tomorrow’s promise.

Rabbi Ben Bag Bag said: “Turn it over, and again turn it over, for all is contained therein. And look into it; and become gray and old therein. And do not move away from it, for you have no better portion than it.”

To discover meaning all we have to do is to look at these ancient words anew. To recall our sacred task all we need do is unfurl this sacred scroll.

A book is our king. The word is our ruler.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Small Changes, Big Questions

This week we enter the Hebrew month of Elul, the season devoted to introspection as we prepare for the upcoming the High Holidays. We ask many questions of ourselves. What can I do differently? To whom should I offer apologies? How can I do better?

All these questions are connected to the very first question.

After God created Adam and Eve and placed them in their lavish new home, the Garden of Eden, God told them they could eat whichever fruits and vegetables they wanted, except the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Of course, they did not listen. They ate the fruit. Then, when they heard God approaching, they became afraid and hid.

No one can hide from God. And God called out, “Ayekah—where are you?” God knew exactly where they were hiding, but God wanted Adam and Eve to own their mistake, to admit their error and amend their failings. Instead, Adam said, “It’s not my fault. It’s that woman’s doing.” (Hmm. The Torah sounds so contemporary!). And Eve said, “It wasn’t me. It was that talking snake.” (Hmm. There we go again blaming fictions instead of taking responsibility.)

No one should hide from questions.

Because Adam and Eve failed to admit their mistake and attempt to correct their wrongs, they were punished. God asked, “Where are you?” so that they might figure out where they stand. Instead they blamed others.

Repentance was only a question away.

Recently, my colleague Rabbi Judy Schindler taught that this one-word question, “ayekah” is similar to the Hebrew word, “aykha—woe.” This is the word that opens Jeremiah’s lament about Jerusalem’s destruction. “Woe! Lonely sits the city once great with people.” are the words that open our Tisha B’Av mourning. Woe is me is how we recall the destruction of the ancient Temples.

All that separates these Hebrew words are a few vowels. Add a dot, change a few of those mysterious symbols, and “where am I” is transformed into “woe is me.”

Most of the time we vocalize the wrongs that happen all around us by saying, “Woe is me.” We lament our misfortune. We cry to God about the injustices that befall us.

If the coming High Holidays, however, are going to have their intended meaning then we best ask, “Where am I?” Change is never accomplished by casting blame. It can only be achieved by asking questions. They must be as searing and probing as that very first question.

All that separates us from the repentance that is our most urgent task are a few vowels. All that stands in the way of change is something as small as a vowel.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Let No One Tear Us Apart

This dizzying week has confirmed a number of beliefs. Let me reiterate them. 1) Some members of congress are Israel’s enemies. 2) Barring such enemies from visiting Israel is a terrible mistake. 3) The suggestion that some Jews’ loyalty to Israel should be doubted is divisive and terribly dismaying. Let’s unpack these affirmations.

Representatives Tlaib and Omar support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement who some suggest only wants to end Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank. And while many Jews, and a fair number of Israelis, believe that Israel’s building of settlements and its control over West Bank Palestinians’ freedoms, threatens Israel’s security and undermines Israel’s democracy, the BDS movement really teaches that Zionism and the State of Israel are illegitimate.


Tlaib, for example, supports a one state solution rather than the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state we love and admire....

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Bucket Lists

We know a great deal about Moses’ life and his many accomplishments. We do not know much about his personal aspirations. I do know that there was one all important thing on his bucket list. He wanted to visit the land of Israel. Sadly, he never achieved this goal. He died on the other side of the Jordan River.

He pleaded with God. “Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan…” God responded harshly, “Enough! Never speak to Me about this matter again.” (Deuteronomy 3)

Our hero’s bucket list remained unfulfilled. It was a simple list. It contained only one item. The reason why Moses is Moses is because he did not ask much for himself. He was all about the mission and little about his own wants. True, he occasionally lost his temper. And this is the stated reason why he is not allowed to enter the land.

I think, however, that his impatience, and anger, are understandable. It’s not like he had an easy job. At the age of 80 he is tasked with leading the difficult, and ever complaining, and occasionally outright rebellious, Israelites through the wilderness. He really did not want the job. God coaxed him. And then it ends up lasting forty years. His frustration is understandable.

One can imagine Moses saying, “I just want to touch the Promised Land with my own hands and feet before I die.” And I am left wondering why God would not grant him this one request.

Then again, I wonder about bucket lists. They are all about personal aspirations. I want to go to Alaska. I want to visit Vietnam. I want to climb Mount Everest. (No, not really.) I want to go sky diving. (Ok, maybe.) I want to complete an Ironman. One day, I want to sail wherever the winds and waves might take me.

Bucket lists are all about what I want, where I want to go and what I want to do. They are about the about the places I want to see, the cultures I find fascinating and the heretofore unimaginable things I might learn doing these things. They are about the people I could possibly meet on my travels and the self-discovery I might achieve. They are about the experiences I hope to achieve.

Bucket lists are about imagining the personal fulfillment we might gain in the allotted years we are granted. If only every one of us were to be blessed with a lifetime of Moses’ 120 years! This is the nature of bucket lists. Each of us writes, and rewrites, these lists. They seem to grow longer with each passing year.

Friends return from their travels and regale us about what they saw and what they experienced and most importantly about where they ate. We take notes. More items are added. The world gets even bigger. Such lists are not bad. Rabbi Hillel reminds us: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself what am I?”

It is just that bucket lists are really more about ourselves than the world.

What if our lists looked more like Moses’? What if the personal ask was only one item long and the rest of the list was about how we are going to help others get to their promised land?

Imagine that. Our personal fulfillment might better be achieved by lifting others up and helping others master their goals.

And I imagine that then the world might seem smaller. And our lives might no longer seem so overwhelming.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

No More Mourning

In 1966, the Israeli author, Shai Agnon, received the Nobel Prize in Literature. When accepting the award, he said:
As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem. In a dream, in a vision of the night, I saw myself standing with my brother-Levites in the Holy Temple, singing with them the songs of David, King of Israel, melodies such as no ear has heard since the day our city was destroyed and its people went into exile…. I was five years old when I wrote my first song. It was out of longing for my father that I wrote it.
The genius and creativity spanning the 2,000 years since that historic catastrophe found its impetus in longing.

It was about dreaming.

Tisha B’Av, which occurs on Sunday, commemorates a number of Jewish tragedies....

Friday, August 2, 2019

Tell the Truth

A brief comment on some ancient, and seemingly out of date, words.

The Torah states: “Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying, ‘This is what the Lord has commanded: when people make vows or take an oath, they shall not break their pledge; they must carry out all that has crossed their lips.’” (Numbers 30)

The rabbis ask, “Why did Moses speak to the heads of the tribes? Why did he direct his words to the leaders and not all the people?”

The Hatam Sofer, a leading 19th century rabbi, responds: “The reason is that it is often leaders who make all types of promises which they don’t keep. Because they often go back on their promises, this warning was aimed specifically at them.”

Such is the teaching that occurred to me when watching this week’s presidential debates.

Such is the response to those who suggest the Torah has nothing to say about our contemporary struggles.

Leaders, especially those who wish to become president, should be the most careful with their words. They should be even more careful than everyone else.

The Torah remains up to date.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Passion and Zealotry

The Talmud counsels: “Rabbi Hisda taught: 'If the zealot comes to seek counsel, we never instruct him to act.'" (Sanhedrin 81b)

And yet the Torah reports that Pinchas was rewarded for his actions. Here is his story. The people are gathered on the banks of the Jordan River, poised to enter the land of Israel. They have become enthralled with the religion of the Midianites, sacrificing to their god, and participating in its festivals. Moses tries to get the Israelites to stop, issuing laws forbidding such foreign practices, but they refuse to listen. God becomes enraged.

"Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions... When Pinchas saw this he left the assembly and taking a spear in his hand he followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly." The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "Pinchas has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me." (Numbers 25) Pinchas' passion tempers God’s anger. Thus Pinchas renews the covenant between God and the people.

It is for this reason that Pinchas’ memory is recalled at the brit milah ceremony. As we renew the covenant through the ritual of circumcision we recall Pinchas. We then welcome the presence of the prophet Elijah who, in the future, will announce the coming of the messiah. We pray, “This is the chair of Elijah the prophet who is remembered for good.” Perhaps this young child will prove to be our people’s redeemer.

Elijah is as well a zealot. He, like Pinchas, has a violent temper and deals with non-believers with an equally heavy hand. He kills hundreds of idolaters and worshipers of Baal. So why are these the heroes we recall when we circumcise our sons? Is it possible that the rabbis saw this ritual and its demand that we take a knife to our sons as a zealous act? Was this their nod to the intense passion that is required to perform the mitzvah of circumcision?

The Torah suggests that an act is made holy by one’s intention, that the ends justify even extreme means. Pinchas succeeds in ridding the Israelites of idolatry. Elijah as well bests the prophets of Baal, bringing the people closer to monotheism. They are thus revered by our tradition.

I remain troubled. I stand appalled.

I wonder. Why must passions lead to zealous acts?

Zealousness and passion are too often intertwined. Passion is desired. Zealousness must be quelled. The knife can be an instrument of holiness or a tool for murder.

My teacher at the Shalom Hartman Institute, Dr. Israel Knohl, once remarked that monotheism is given to violence. Because it is adamant that there is only one God it promotes the destruction of other gods and occasionally, or perhaps it is better to say, too often, their worshippers. Monotheism is exacting. It can be as well ruthless.

I hold firm to its belief. I remain distant from the actions it too frequently deems holy.

And so I draw a measure of comfort from the very same prophet whose actions I abhor. Elijah’s story concludes with a beautiful estimation of where we might find God. It is not in a thunderous voice or mighty actions. "There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks, but the Lord was not in the wind... After the earthquake—fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, a still, small voice." (I Kings 19)

This is the Haftarah that is often paired with this week’s portion. The rabbis offer this reading as a counterweight. We require passion, but not zealousness. Not every disagreement is a threat that necessitates radical action. Believing in one God does not require that we destroy others, or their followers. A plurality of beliefs does not negate our own firmly held convictions.

Hold fast to your own beliefs. Leave room for others’ convictions.

The Rabbis teach! If the zealot comes to seek counsel, we never instruct him to act.

Rely instead on the still, small voice.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

King David's Footsteps

Several days ago, I hiked in the footsteps of King David. The words of the Bible became real. They became filled with life.

In Israel one can literally walk where our biblical heroes traveled. One can stand where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac or where the prophet Amos admonished the Jewish people or where David composed his sweet psalms.

In the land of Israel our Bible takes shape. It is here that the soil adds flesh to our legends.

Before beginning the hike, we stood on the heights of Tel Azekah where the Israelites spied the Philistine army. It was there that our people cowered in fear before the mighty Goliath. A young David volunteered to battle the giant. He refused the offer of King Saul’s armor and spear. He thought them too cumbersome and heavy. David killed Goliath with a small pebble thrown from his slingshot. The Israelite army then routed the Philistines and the Israelites soon crowned David as king.

The legend of David and Goliath was born here, in this place....

Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Pattern of Failures

I am writing from Jerusalem where I am studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Rabbinic Torah Study Seminar. I remain grateful that our congregation recognizes the need for me to deepen my learning and recharge my commitments. There is really nothing like studying with colleagues and learning from remarkable teachers, and most especially, to do so here in Jerusalem. No matter how many times I may visit this city, every time I return becomes a pilgrimage in which my spirit is renewed.

This morning I was reminded of a favorite saying of my teacher Rabbi David Hartman, may his memory be for a blessing. He often said that the Bible is an indictment of the Jewish people. Like so many of Reb David’s teachings, this appears counter intuitive. We often look to the Bible as inspiration. We hold it up time and again as the best source to motivate us to do good or for that matter, the justification to observe the Jewish holidays, or as in my present case, the cause for me to return to this holy city, year after year, or, and perhaps most especially, to re-establish sovereignty in this land after 2,000 years of wandering.

Rabbi Hartman of course saw something far different and perhaps far more in the Bible’s words. It was more about our failings than our successes. It was more about not living up to what was asked of us rather than fulfilling God’s commandments. Take the prophets for example who over and over again chastise the Jewish people for failing to live up to God’s expectations. Each and every one of them, from Amos to Isaiah, say in effect, “Do you think this is all God wants you to do!” They thundered, “It is not enough to go to services. It is not enough to light candles.”

Their exhortations can be summed up with the words, “It is not enough.”

And when one looks at the grand narrative portrayed in the Bible, as we did this morning with Micah Goodman, the author of the acclaimed book Catch-67, one realizes that the story does not culminate with the Jewish people establishing a nation in the promised land of Israel, but instead with their return to Egypt. We leave Egypt following Moses’ lead, wander the wilderness, conquer the land under Joshua, establish the rule of kings and build the Temple. But then during the years that the prophet Jeremiah prophesies, the Babylonians destroy the holy Temple and establish Gedaliah as their puppet king. He is soon assassinated by a fellow Jew.

The Book of Kings then concludes: “And all the people, young and old, and the officers of the troops set out and went to Egypt because they were afraid of the Babylonians.” (II Kings 25). History is cyclical. We were taken out of Egypt only to return to Egypt. Our powerlessness was transformed into power and then again to powerlessness.

The movement, and struggle, between power and powerlessness continues in our own age.

Back to the Bible and in particular this week’s Torah reading. Even the Five Books of Moses is not the crowning achievement of the very person who heralds its name, but instead stands as an indictment against Moses and an elucidation of his shortcomings. We read about why God does not allow him to enter the land. The people are once again complaining. There is a lot of that in the Book of Numbers. (That alone should stand as evidence of David Hartman’s teaching.) There is not enough water. God tells Moses and Aaron to instruct a rock to bring water. Moses instead hits the rock and says, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (Numbers 20)

And with that, God decides that Moses does not get to enter the land. Commentators debate what was Moses’ exact sin. Was it that he hit the rock not just one time, but two? Was it instead that he became angry, again, at the people? Was it that he took credit for God’s miracle? Was it that he drew a stark line between the people and their leader and insulted them by calling them rebels?

The Bible is unclear. It is however clear that God thinks Moses’ time is done. He failed as a leader. The Five Books of Moses indicts its very own author.

Perhaps that is the Bible’s very inspiration. Failure is part and parcel to our lives.

Failure is part of our history.

Leaving Egypt and then returning to Egypt, and then leaving again and returning again, is the pattern of our destiny.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Why I'm Both Celebrating the Myth and Honoring the Anger

I wonder how Korah’s descendants describe this week’s events described in the synagogue’s weekly Torah reading. Would it be akin to the accolades we heap on Bar Kochba who led a failed a rebellion against Rome in the second century? To this day we sing of his courage when we recall Rabbi Akiva’s martyrdom on our holiest of days, Yom Kippur. Akiva was one of Bar Kochba’s greatest supporters.

Moses ruthlessly quashed Korah’s rebellion (revolution?). He killed Korah and 250 of his followers. Would my hero Moses be called a murderer by Korah’s descendants?

“Blasphemy!” one might say.

Years ago, I traveled to Israel on a UJA mission. It was during the second intifada and we were there to show our support and express our solidarity. Yitzhah Rabin was assassinated five years earlier and my companions and I were deeply traumatized by his murder and the increasingly deadly Palestinian terrorist attacks.

We mourned the soldier turned prime minister turned peace maker....

Friday, June 28, 2019

Today's Anguish

The spies return from scouting the land of Israel. Ten return with a negative report. They say: “All the people that we saw in it were men of great size and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves.” (Numbers 13)

Every morning I read the newspapers. Every evening I watch the TV news. During the day I read online reports.

The other day a father and daughter drowned in the Rio Grande while trying to cross the United States-Mexico border. Their names were Oscar Alberto and Valerie Martinez Ramirez. Many others have discovered a similar fate. Some fled worn torn Syria. Others ran from persecution in Sudan. Some escaped violence in Central America. Others left poverty in Venezuela.

They see in America a promise and hope.

Every morning I read the newspapers. Every evening I watch the TV news. During the day I read online reports.

And that is all I seem to do.

I offer up excuses for going about my day as if the plight of refugees and asylum seekers is normal. “But I have to buy a new pair of pants. But I have dinner plans. But I have to work out.” The problems seem enormous. They appear insurmountable. What can I do?

More! At the very least.

A father and daughter drowned at our nation’s border.

Regardless of our disagreements about immigration policy our humanity demands more of us. Our tradition asks us to do better. A father does not risk his daughter’s life out of folly. He traverses a raging river only because desperation propels him. I may not understand the specifics of his desperation, but I cannot imagine any other reason.

I have never faced such a decision. I have never needed to take such risks.

And I look like a grasshopper to myself.

I wish I could muster the strength of Joshua. I wish I could summon the courage of Caleb. They were the spies who did not see the giants. They refused to see the enormity of what stood before them. Their faith was unrivaled.

Perhaps the ten spies were realists. Perhaps the challenges they faced were in fact gigantic.

And Joshua and Caleb were idealists.

I long to hold on to their ideals. I reach for their words:

“Have no fear of them!”

I read. Have no fear. I must do more.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Gossip Disfigures

How dare anyone criticize our leader!

We read: “Miriam spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married.” (Numbers 12) We learn elsewhere that Moses’ wife is Zipporah. She is a Midianite. This week the Torah suggests that she is dark-skinned and therefore perhaps from Ethiopia. She is not an Israelite. Was this the basis of Miriam’s criticism of her brother Moses? 

How dare he marry a foreigner!

Their brother Aaron joins the critique. He and Miriam pile on more harsh words, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has God not spoken through us as well?” Were they jealous of their brother Moses? Did they want to lead the Israelites as well? Did they believe, as Judaism does, that everyone can have a relationship with God and that anyone, with enough wisdom and learning, can lead?

Perhaps our leader thinks too much of himself. Perhaps he denigrates the holy spark found in each and every person.

Rashi, the great medieval commentator, disagrees. He imagines Miriam criticizing her brother for neglecting his wife. Moses is singularly devoted to his mission. He is on call for God at all hours of the day and night. Miriam therefore worries about her sister in law’s well-being. She worries about her brother’s marriage and family.

I wonder. Is the best teaching offering by the very person who falls short of fulfilling its words? Rashi authored a line-by-line commentary to the entire Bible and Talmud. How did he find time for his own family? Miriam reminds us. No job is more important than family. No task, even one divinely ordained, should take precedence over those closest to us.

God apparently disagrees. Miriam is punished and stricken with leprosy. Aaron is left alone to plea for his sister, “O, my lord, account not to us the sin which we committed in our folly.”

The rabbis suggest that it was not what Miriam said but the manner in which she spoke the words. They see a parallel between this disfiguring disease and gossip. The tradition is clear. Even if the words are true they must only be spoken when absolutely necessary and then only in private. Critique becomes gossip when it finds its way into the public domain. Criticism becomes slander when it seeks to demean others rather than uplift them.

Gossip disfigures. A Hasidic story relates that it is like a feather cast to the wind. Such words can never be collected. Once gossip is shared it can never be withdrawn. The damage to a person’s reputation might never be undone. Beware of what one tweets! Judaism counsels. Gossip disfigures the gossiper.

A person’s character unravels when she or he gossips. The rabbis remind us that gossip not only belittles the person about whom we talk but also damages the person who speaks such words. Gossip denigrates everyone—even and including the person who listens.

And so we must offer prayers of contrition for all the times we resorted to gossip to entertain. We pray for all the moments we gossiped in order to give ourselves a greater sense of self-worth. We pray for all the minutes we inclined our ears to the gossip that others shared. We pray with Moses, “O God, pray, heal her.”

Heal us!

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Making Peace

The Ktav Sofer, a leading nineteenth century Hungarian rabbi, comments: “Peace begins in the home, then extends to the community, and finally to all the world.”

It is a fascinating lesson. Often we speak about bringing peace to the world but forget about making peace with those who stand closest to us. We give lofty speeches and sermons (rabbi!) about making peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, or between Democrats and Republicans but neglect making peace with those we profess love. But such grandiose endeavors are impossible if we do not begin with a foundation of peace in our personal relationships.

If couples argue at home, then they often bring divisiveness to work. If parents yell at their children, then their children bring anger to school.

We cannot make peace if we don’t feel at peace. If our interactions with others are rife with conflict and discord then how can we bring peace or for that matter, negotiate peace? Judaism has long recognized the centrality of peace. It teaches about its necessity. Shalom bayit, peace in the home, is of paramount importance. Other values take second to preserving it.

And this is why so many of our prayers speak of peace. The central prayer we recite whenever we gather concludes with a prayer for peace. The Amidah may offer a litany of requests: for health, forgiveness and justice to name a few, but we always conclude with the words: “Blessed are You Adonai who blesses Your people Israel with peace.” We conclude as well the Blessing after Meals with the prayer: “Oseh shalom bimromav…May the One who makes peace in the high heavens make peace for us, for all Israel and all who inhabit the earth.” The Kaddish also concludes with these same words.

We pray for peace so we might have the strength to bring peace.

This week we learn the words for the priestly blessing. These are the words I am often privileged to recite at baby namings, bnai mitzvah and weddings. “May the Lord bless you and keep you! May the light of the Lord’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you! May you always find God’s presence in your life and blessed with shalom, peace.”

These are also the words that parents recite when blessing their children at the Shabbat and holiday dinner table. We begin our festive meals by asking God to bring peace to those we most treasure: our children. We conclude our meal by asking God to bring peace to our people and then to the world.

Perhaps the great Hungarian rabbi is correct. Peace must begin in the home. Then it extends to the community and finally we hope, to all the world.

I offer this suggestion. Try blessing your children at home. It might bring an additional measure of peace to your home and your most prized relationships.

And you never know. It could even be the beginning of bringing peace to the world.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

The Torah of Competing Ideas

People often think the Torah speaks with one voice. They believe it provides answers. They think it is a guide laying out exactly how we might discern which ideas are winners and which losers, which duties are most important and which less. It does not.

Likewise people think that governing is about winning and losing, about voting to determine what is most important and least. It is not.

Democracies are instead sustained by compromise. They thrive when we learn how to live alongside those who hold competing ideas.

In our American system of government, Democrats and Republicans are supposed to spend their years of service hammering out compromises. Congressional leaders from opposing parties are intended to get together and debate, and even argue vociferously. But then they are supposed to offer the country a compromise agreement around which the majority of citizens can rally.

Most Americans agree, for example, that our current immigration system needs fixing. And yet we are unable to come to any agreement. Our leaders shout their beliefs; they hue to their party’s talking points rather than offering compromise proposals. This is because our leaders do not lead. They do not model compromise. They do not say, “Here is a plan to reform our immigration system with which I mostly agree.”

Instead we retreat to the comfort of the like-minded. We remain loyal to ideology and devoted to our own political opinions. We measure leaders by the metric of ideological purity. We believe that compromise signifies poor leadership. We therefore remain trapped in an age of stonewalling, executive orders and emergency powers.

Our system was designed however not so that one ideology would win the day but so that pieces of as many ideologies as possible would have their say. We have forgotten that this was always the intention of American government. It was about compromise. It was about getting to be right some of the time, not all of the time.

Democracies are breaking under the weight of more and more people, most especially our leaders, saying, “I only want to talk to and listen to those with whom I agree.”

In Israel as well its system is faltering. There, compromise is supposed to be worked out when negotiating a coalition agreement. In Israel’s multi-party system no one ever gets a majority of votes and so the leading party must cobble together enough other parties to reach at least sixty-one seats. Knesset members must do much of the hard work of hammering out compromises in order to become part of the ruling coalition.

Never before has Israel had to call elections a few months after an election. And yet this is exactly what happened last week. Why?

It is for the exact same reason that American leaders are unable to achieve meaningful compromise on the many challenges facing our own nation and the world. Israeli leaders were unable to compromise. They forgot that every coalition is imperfect. A leader might be able to be right on one issue but wrong on another. Israel, and Israeli politics especially, was always about holding as many different philosophies together while still clinging to a shared devotion to the same nation.

Today, political leaders instead held fast to their ideologies. Disagreement is now couched as disloyalty. Our systems are breaking.

And so I turn to my Torah. I look toward the celebration of Shavuot when we will once again give thanks for the revelation at Sinai.

The Rabbis comment: Had only one of the six hundred thousand been absent when the Israelites stood at Mount Sinai, the Torah would not have been given.

I recall. The Torah was not given to Moses alone. It was instead revealed to hundreds of thousands.

Rabbi Aaron Halevi, a medieval commentator adds: It is for this reason that the Torah was given to six hundred thousand people. It was the will of the Holy One, blessed be God, that the Torah be accepted by all factions, and the six hundred thousand included all factions and opinions.

We are only one people when all factions and opinions and ideas are welcomed. We are only one nation when all ideas and philosophies stand alongside each other. We must work to recapture this foundation. We must strive to renew this revelation.

Then and only then can we recover Sinai.

Friday, May 31, 2019

The Torah's Strength

This week we conclude reading the Book of Leviticus.

We read: “These are the commandments that the Lord gave Moses for the Israelite people on Mount Sinai.” And then we say what we always say after concluding one of the Torah’s five books: “Hazak hazak v’nithazek—Be strong, be strong and may we be strengthened.”

It is a curious formulation. We say these words so frequently that we rarely pause to contemplate their meaning. Why do we wish for strength when completing the reading of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy? Why do we not hope for compassion? Is not this one of the great purposes of the Torah: to bring more compassion to our broken world?

Perhaps it is because that little can be accomplished without strength. We cannot bring compassion; we cannot bring healing without strength. We require strength, and much of it, to even bring a small measure of repair to our aching world.

And why do we repeat the word “hazak—be strong”? It is because we also require strength to open up the next book of the Torah. It demands an extraordinary amount of strength, and faith, to say year in and year out that everything we need to discover about ourselves and our world can be found in these five books. What a remarkable statement of faith we affirm.

In the face of all the 21st century’s newness, and the information that can now be gained from our iPhones or by just staring at our computer screens, we say something countercultural and perhaps even counterintuitive. We shout: more can be learned from these ancient words that we still stubbornly chant in a language we continue to struggle to understand. More truths can be gleaned from words written in a seemingly arcane way on a parchment that is so obviously removed from our fast paced digital world.

Tomorrow’s truth can be uncovered in yesterday’s words.

Reading the Torah requires the strength to say that sometimes doing something the old-fashioned way is the right way—or at the very least, can lead us to the right answers or perhaps even better to say, the right questions. Asking the right questions are the beginning to finding the correct path.

I very much doubt these words meant the same thing to the rabbis who long ago added this formula to the conclusion of reading a Torah’s book, but it is what they can mean to us today.

And why do we conclude this formula with the first person plural word “nithazek—may we be strengthened”? That answer may very well be the same as it always was. We are unified by the Torah. Our community is strengthened by the Torah reading. The Jewish world is brought together by this ritual. Every synagogue throughout the world is reading the same Torah portion.

For at least this very brief moment we are all on the same page. While we may be interpreting it in radically different ways we are unified by the words we chant. Jews everywhere begin with these same verses. The unity that too often eludes us is found on the parchment that is unrolled before us.

We are strengthened by the Torah. We are unified by this sacred scroll. We may very well feel divided on Thursday but on Shabbat morning we are brought together by this act of reading from the scroll. When the Torah scroll is lifted we become one people. Perhaps this is only momentary, but we are unified nonetheless.

We hope and pray. May this unity continue to blossom.

Hazak hazak v’nithazek!

Monday, May 27, 2019

Memorial Day Remembrance

On this Memorial Day I wish to remember four chaplains. Here is their story.

On the evening of February 2, 1943 the US transport ship, Dorchester, along with two other ships, was sailing through the icy waters off the coast of Newfoundland, only 150 miles from its base in Greenland. A German U-boat spotted the ships and fired torpedoes at the Dorchester. The ship was struck. Almost immediately the captain ordered the surviving sailors to abandon ship. Within twenty minutes the ship would sink.

It was in those minutes that these chaplains became heroes. Panic and chaos set in on the Dorchester. The blast had killed hundreds. Countless were seriously wounded. Survivors groped in the darkness. Men jumped into the icy waters of the Atlantic. Others scrambled onto the lifeboats, overcrowding them and nearly capsizing the small boats.

According to survivors, four men instilled calm. They were four Army chaplains: Lt. George L. Fox, a Methodist minister; Lt. John P. Washington, a Roman Catholic priest; Lt. Clark V. Poling, a Dutch Reformed minister; and Lt. Alexander D. Goode, a rabbi. Quickly and quietly the four chaplains spread out among the sailors. There they tried to calm the frightened, tend to the wounded and guide the disoriented to safety. They offered prayers for the dying and encouragement to the living.

One survivor found himself swimming in oil-drenched ocean water surrounded by floating dead bodies and debris. Private Bednar recalled, “I could hear men crying, pleading and praying. I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.”

Another, Petty Officer John Mahoney, recalled trying to reenter his cabin. Rabbi Goode stopped him. The sailor was concerned about forgetting his winter gloves. Goode responded, “Never mind. I have two pairs.” The rabbi gave Mahoney his own gloves.

By this time, most of the sailors had scrambled topside. The chaplains opened a storage locker and began distributing life jackets. When there were no more lifejackets in the storage room, the chaplains removed theirs and gave them to four frightened young men.

As the ship began to sink, survivors in nearby rafts reported that they saw the four chaplains with their arms linked together, supporting each other against the slanting deck. Their voices could also be heard offering prayers. It is said that some Jewish sailors reported hearing the singing of the Shema. Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad--Hear O Israel the Lord our God the Lord is one!

During WWII many soldiers sacrificed their lives in order to conquer evil. Some stories have become well known. Others less. A rabbi, priest and two ministers did not fight the Nazis with weapons. Instead they stood together and helped to conquer fear.

I do not wish for more to die defending our nation. I did not wish to add more names to our Memorial Day litany.

Today I recall the memory of these four chaplains. Their brotherhood represents what is so great, and even unique, about our country. Standing arm in arm we can indeed conquer fear.


Friday, May 24, 2019

Everything is Borrowed

Ownership is foreign to the religious mindset. Religions in general, and Judaism in particular, teach that everything is instead on loan from God. We are borrowers rather than owners.

This is true with regard to our bodies. Every human being is created in the image of God. All people contain within themselves a spark of God’s holiness. Their bodies are therefore repositories of God’s majesty. The human body is a holy vessel commanding reverence and care.

We are therefore not allowed to do whatever we want to our bodies. We are commanded to take care of them. We are obligated, for example, to eat well and exercise. To do otherwise would be a desecration of this holy vessel. To do otherwise would be to diminish God’s image. To do otherwise would be to shirk our duties and responsibilities.

While abortion is required when the mother’s life is in danger, and while I certainly believe that the mother should have far more say of what she does or does not do with her body than for instance a group of strange men, Judaism does not believe she can, or should, do whatever she wants. The body is to be cared for as if it is a Torah scroll. It is holy and but lent to us.

How we view the issues of the day hinges on the notion of whether or not we see ourselves as owners or borrowers. Better to view ourselves as custodians of a holy vessel. This is why I would suggest that the vast majority of people who nurture the frail and elderly or do the extraordinary work of hospice care are people of profound faith. Nearly all such caregivers are deeply religious.

I have come to learn that such a perspective makes this unimaginably difficult work a fraction lighter.

Such faith should also imbue how we view our possessions. If things are not viewed as earned by our hard work and our talents but instead borrowed from God, then it is likewise far easier to donate an even greater portion of our earnings to those in need. This is what Judaism seeks: a world more giving and therefore more compassionate. How does it inculcate behaviors that bring such a world closer to fruition? By teaching that everything is borrowed.

Even the land of Israel is not viewed as ours, but instead belongs to God. This is why this week we read about the sabbatical year in which the land must lie fallow on the seventh year. Land ownership is foreign to the religious mindset. A mortgage is not taken out from a bank but instead from God.

And this comes to teach that there is room not just for me, or even us, but everyone—on any land. We are stewards of the earth and tenants on God’s land.

The Torah proclaims: “The land is Mine; and you are but strangers resident with Me.” (Leviticus 25) Even the Jewish people are deemed strangers on their ancestral land.

That is the worldview that promotes more room for others. That is the mindset that inculcates the drive to share far more with neighbors. That is the perspective that teaches that we cannot do whatever we want when we want—even with our own bodies.

Imagine a world where we view everything as but lent to us. Imagine a world where there is more for everyone.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Be More Religious, Do More Good

Nearly 200 years ago, Rabbi Israel Salantar, the founder of the Musar movement, a philosophy that sought to move ethics back to the center of Jewish life, told his students that he had an important job for them. They were to go out and inspect the local matzah factory to certify that its products were indeed kosher for Passover. They talked amongst themselves before their rabbi arrived. They had spent weeks studying Passover’s restrictions and pouring over the words of the Talmudic tractate detailing the holiday’s laws.

They had argued whether or not legumes should be permitted on the holiday and how to sell the hametz. One of them asked the group, “How many minutes must transpire from when the flour and water are mixed until the matzah is taken out of the oven?” “Eighteen minutes,” another shouted. (In a nutshell the technical difference between bread and matzah is about the timing. Eighteen minutes or under its matzah. Nineteen its bread—not good bread, but bread nonetheless.)

The great sage then entered the class. “We are ready for this holy task,” they said in unison. “Rabbi,” one of his students asked. “Is there something we should specifically look for there?” “Yes. Most definitely,” said Rabbi Salanter. “When you get to the factory, you will see an old woman baking matzah. The woman is poor and has a large family to support. Make sure that the factory’s owners are paying her a living wage.”

The students stared at each other in astonishment. One asked, “What about making sure the preparation and cooking take no more than eighteen minutes?” “That is really not the most important thing, my students,” Salanter said. “The most important thing is to make sure that the person who is baking this matzah is properly taken care of. If she is not then the matzah factory is not worthy of being called kosher.”

People often define religiosity in terms of ritual scrupulousness. That makes sense given this week’s portion that details all of the major Jewish holidays: Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, Shavuot and even the Omer period in which we now find ourselves. That makes sense given the importance people often ascribe to participation in Shabbat services.

On Friday evening I often hear, “Rabbi, where is everyone? Why are people not here at services? No one is practicing Judaism anymore. If we don’t make sure more people are more observant then our people are not going to be around much longer.” I usually respond: “What does being Jewish mean to you?” And they answer, “Observing Shabbat. Coming to services. Celebrating the holidays.”

I admit. I love our praying and singing. It offers me uplift. Shabbat prayer provides me the opportunity to connect with God and with people—in real time and in the real world, as opposed to the virtual world of Facebook and Instagram. It offers me a respite from the weekday worries. And when it works really well prayer helps to point me towards my ethical obligations.

Judaism does not view rituals as ends unto themselves. It does not view the Shabbat candles or the mezuzah as protective amulets that will ward away bad tidings. If people kiss the mezuzah, for example, when entering their home but then scream and yell at their family then they are missing the mezuzah’s greatest lesson. The theory is simple. If you kiss the mezuzah you are more apt to treat others with love and kindness. If you light the candles you are more likely to work to bring a measure of shalom to the world.

Rituals point to ethics.

Still it appears that an increasing number of American Jewish have become less enamored with our tradition’s rituals. They find yoga, or perhaps cycling, as more centering than Shabbat prayers.

So the question for today is can we do Jewish with lives less infused with Jewish ritual? At the very least we should expand our understanding of what it means to be religious. We should stop writing ourselves out of being religious because we do not light candles eighteen minutes before sunset or only eat matzah during Passover. We should instead ask ourselves the more challenging questions.

Do we pay our employees a living wage? Do we love the stranger? Do we give enough to tzedakah? Do we avoid speaking lashon hara—gossip? Do we treat our parents with respect?

That list is perhaps lengthier than the list of ritual commandments. It is certainly more challenging to observe than coming to services each and every Friday evening. But answer, “Yes, I do.” to even a few of these commands on even a somewhat regular basis and we can begin to call ourselves religious.

Perhaps we should become just as devout in calling our parents before Shabbat as lighting the candles. Perhaps we should be just as scrupulous with the words we speak about our neighbors as we do with the adornments of the Passover seder plate.

One day I dream of saying, “I serve the most religious congregation anyone can ever imagine. They all might not be here this Shabbat evening but they are busy making the world a better place with a word of kindness here and an extra dollar there.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Israel's Ordinariness is Extraordinary

Today the State of Israel celebrates 71 years of independence. Just saying that statement is a remarkable thing to utter. Israel’s 71st. Savor those words.

For all of the challenges and missteps, the achievements and triumphs, the disappointments and missed opportunities, the unrivaled successes and countless celebrations none come close to the feeling, the remarkable gift and the sense of gratitude that Israel celebrates 71 years of independence. The dream of generations of Jews is now a reality. For 2,000 years we dreamed that we would one day return to the land of Israel. This still figures prominently in our prayers. The Seders we only recently celebrated conclude with the words L’shanah habah b’yerushalayim—next year in Jerusalem.

Today, I could say, “I am leaving tomorrow morning to fly to Israel.” I am not doing that of course, but if I were, the response would not be, “Wow. What a miracle.” But instead, “Which airline? Are you flying El Al? Are you flying out of JFK?” Another would chime in, “Don’t fly El Al. It’s the worst. People are constantly climbing over you as you are trying to sleep. You should fly Turkish Air instead.”

Others would ask, “Where are you staying?” More would then offer advice. “You should stay at the King David. It’s historic. You should spend more days in Tel Aviv. Go to Mitzpe Ramon and check out the Negev desert. Make a reservation at Zahav.” Actually Zahav is located in Philadelphia and was recently named the best restaurant in America. How remarkable is that. The best restaurant in America features Israeli cuisine.

We should take in the sheer ordinariness of these conversations.

Thousands of years ago we were almost destroyed. We then mourned the destruction of Jerusalem. And now, in our own age, we talk about visiting Israel as if it’s just another trip to another great country. We argue about flights and hotels, restaurants and sites. For all the discussions and debates we could have about Israel’s policies and the never ending conflict with the Palestinians, most recently after Hamas fired hundreds of rockets from Gaza, on this day we should breathe in not the miracle of the State of Israel but instead its ordinariness.

We wish for it to always be extraordinary, to fulfill our every dream, to live up to the prayers we sing about it, but on this day we should hold on to the ordinary. And that very ordinariness should be what takes our breath away. It is not the miracle but the ordinariness which is the fulfillment of the Zionist dream. It affirms the Declaration of Independence’s words: “This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.”

Israel’s matter of fact-ness may be its greatest achievement. Our children do not know of a time when there was not a sovereign State of Israel. I in fact do not know of such a time. Some might be saying to themselves, “Beware of taking Israel for granted. Israel is surrounded by enemies.” Yes. Indeed it is. But I do not wish to dwell on the threats arrayed against Israel or even what many commentators call the growing divide between American Jews and Israel—something about which I remain acutely worried. These are not my focus on this day, and on this occasion.

All I wish is for us to breath in what a unique time we live in. We live in a time when we can hop on a plane and go to Israel. Or not. We live in an age when the State of Israel can be taken for granted. And this may very well be its greatest success.

We can argue about many, many things. We are Jews of course. We can debate about what Israel does and does not do. And we should certainly continue these debates—with passion and with love. And we can also argue about the mundane and inconsequential. We can talk about flight times and restaurant reviews.

And we can regale each other about visits to Tel Aviv’s beach and taking in Jerusalem’s desert evenings. On this day that’s all I need. On this day that is all I wish to hold on to.

Israel is 71!

Friday, May 3, 2019

Books of Loss

Yesterday marked Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Commemoration Day. It is the day set aside to remember our people’s loss at the hands of the Nazis’ murderous hatred. As we remember this devastating loss, we cannot help but affirm that antisemitism is still real and most tragically, still murderous.

Last year antisemitic attacks doubled in the United States. Six months ago, we witnessed the deadly attack at a Pittsburgh synagogue and this past Shabbat another at a San Diego area synagogue. It is sadly evident that we must remain on guard against antisemitism. The Board is diligently working on security upgrades for our own synagogue. And there will be security at upcoming services.

While we must remain forever vigilant and while we must improve security at Jewish institutions the most important response to terror remains the same. We must never bow to fear. And we must continue to proclaim, we are proud to lead Jewish lives.

Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, the leader of the Poway Chabad community, said:
I pray that my missing finger serves as a constant reminder to me. A reminder that every single human being is created in the image of God; a reminder that I am part of a people that has survived the worst destruction and will always endure; a reminder that my ancestors gave their lives so that I can live in freedom in America; and a reminder, most of all, to never, ever, not ever be afraid to be Jewish.
Amen!

Again and again, we remember. I recall a few of the individual lives affected by the Holocaust. I urge you to read the stories of this year’s torchlighters. At this year’s Yom HaShoah ceremony at Jerusalem’s Yad VaShem, these six survivors were chosen to light the six memorial lights.

Their tales represent extraordinary stories of survival and loss. To these stories I wish to add another. It is the story about how my favorite children’s book, Curious George, came to be.

When the Nazi party was gaining popularity in Germany, Hans Augusto Rey, a Jewish salesman, knew he had to leave so he fled to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. There, he met and married his old flame, Margret, who had also come there to escape the Nazis. Together, the couple soon moved to Paris in 1935.

When World War II broke out, the Reys realized they could not stay in Paris. They needed to make other plans. They again fled, narrowly escaping Paris a few hours before the Nazis invaded. They rode from Paris on a pair of bicycles that Hans had made. On their backs they strapped some food, a few of their possessions, and the manuscript of a children’s book the couple had been working on—a book about a mischievous monkey named George.

The Reys made it across the Swiss border and eventually found their way to New York, where they first published Curious George. That book, and its sequels, have been translated into dozens of languages—including the Reys’ native Yiddish. Children are still reading about George, his adventures, and the understanding, but always helpful Man with the Yellow Hat.

On this occasion, as I reflect on Yom HaShoah, I wonder how my childhood might have been different if this book did not accompany me, if the Reys had suffered the same fate as the six million. I would never have heard my mother reading over and over again, “George promised to be good. But it is easy for little monkeys to forget.” I wonder how my life would have been different if my mother did not affirm my curiosity through the Man with the Yellow Hat.

A book affirmed my nature and applauded the lesson that discoveries, and learning, begin with curiosity and that most importantly making mistakes, and even making a mess, accompanies curiosity, discovery and learning.

Today, I wonder how many other books could have accompanied me. I imagine there could have been six million more books.

The Holocaust haunts our people. It remains a library of loss.

The hatred continues.

But my curiosity, and embrace of life, remain undeterred.



Friday, April 26, 2019

Let's Start Fixing the World

Another Hasidic story. Perhaps this one is my favorite. I first heard it told by Rabbi Naomi Levy.

A wealthy man approached the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, and asked if he could meet Elijah the Prophet, the messenger of God who rose to heaven in a chariot of fire. The man had heard rumors that Elijah wanders the earth to bless people in need of his help. The wealthy man had achieved great success and counted many accomplishments to his name. Everything he ever wanted, he was able to acquire.

At first the Baal Shem Tov insisted he didn't know how to find Elijah. And then one day the Baal Shem Tov said to the man, "You can meet Elijah this Shabbat. Here is what you must do: Fill up your coach with a Shabbat feast. Pack bread, wine, chicken and vegetables. Pack cakes and fruit and delicacies and bring it all to a certain hut in the forest and ask if you can spend the Shabbat there."

On Friday afternoon the wealthy man rode his coach along a winding forest trail until he came upon the hut the Baal Shem Tov had told him about. He knocked on the door and a poor woman in tattered clothes answered. The wealthy man asked if he could spend the Shabbat with her family.

The husband and his wife were overjoyed to have a Shabbat guest even though there was barely enough food to go around. Their emaciated children giggled with excitement. Then the wealthy man showed them the feast he had brought. For a moment they froze at the sight of such abundance. And then the children cheered, the wife wept with joy, and her husband shouted with excitement.

That Shabbat eve was like no other this family had ever experienced. They ate well, drank well, sang, prayed. The wealthy man kept staring at the poor father. Could this be Elijah? He asked the poor man to teach him Torah, but the man was illiterate. The father ate until his belly was full, he drank and belched and picked his teeth. This couldn’t be Elijah. All through that night and the next day the wealthy man waited impatiently for Elijah to appear. But there was no sign of the holy prophet anywhere.

On Saturday night, as Shabbat came to an end, the wealthy man was fuming. "The Baal Shem Tov deceived me. He made a fool of me." And then he said his goodbyes to the family and raced outside in a huff. As he was stomping away, the wealthy man's boot got stuck in the mud. As he leaned down to pick it up, he overhead sounds of rejoicing coming from inside the window. The children were jumping up and down and squealing with joy over the most wonderful Shabbat they had ever seen.

The wife said to her husband, "Who was that man who brought us all that food?" Her husband replied, "Don't you see? It was Elijah the Prophet who came to bless us."

Suddenly the wealthy man saw who Elijah was.

"Elijah is me," he said to himself. “Elijah is me.”

And Elijah can also be you.

If we only sing to Elijah at the conclusion of our Seders, if we only sing “Eliyahu HaNavi” when we make Havdalah, then we have not come to understand the true meaning our rituals and songs.

Whose home will you visit this coming Shabbat? Whose hungry bellies will you help to fill in the coming days? Whose soul will you begin to repair?

Elijah can be you.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Tell Your Story

A Hasidic story. It is among my favorites. When Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov, the founder of Hasidism, saw that the Jewish people was threatened by tragedy he would go to a particular place in the forest where he lit a fire, recited a particular prayer, and a miracle was accomplished, averting the tragedy.

Later, when the Baal Shem Tov’s disciple, the Maggid of Mezrich, had to intervene with heaven for the same reason, he went to the same place in the forest where he told the Master of the Universe that while he did not know how to light the fire, he could still recite the prayer, and once again, a miracle was accomplished.

Later still, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov, in turn a disciple of the Maggid of Mezrich, went into the forest to save his people. There he pleaded with God, saying, “I do not know how to light the fire and I do not know the prayer, but I can find the place and this must be sufficient.” Once again, a miracle was accomplished.

When it was the turn of Rabbi Yisrael of Rizhyn, the great-grandson of the Maggid of Mezrich who was named after the Baal Shem Tov, to avert the threat, he sat in his chair, holding his head in his hands, and said to God: “I am unable to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, and I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story. That must be enough.”

And this too was sufficient.

Central to our Passover celebrations is the telling of the story of our going out from Egypt. Judaism believes in the power of the story. It is not mere entertainment. It is fundamental to instilling values. We tell and retell. We remember. And we are inspired to act.

We cast ourselves in the story. The Haggadah proclaims, “In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as one who personally went out from Egypt. Not only were our ancestors redeemed by the Holy One of Blessing but even we were redeemed with them.”

This year, tell another story as well. Tell your story. Tell the story of how you, your parents, your grandparents or even your great grandparents went out from wherever your family emigrated from and how they made it to this country. And then how you made this great country your home.

And perhaps this too will be sufficient.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

The Moon's Pull

I am thinking about the moon.

It is because of the moon that we read about leprosy for two weeks rather than one. Most years this week’s portion, Metzora, is combined with last week’s, Tazria, in a double portion. Both are about leprosy. This year, however, is a leap year when we add an entire month. The month is added in the spring prior to Purim. Why?

The reason is simple. Our holidays are tied to the seasons of the 365 day solar calendar. Passover, for example, is the spring harvest festival. Sukkot marks the fall harvest. If we were only to follow the 354 day lunar calendar, as our Muslim neighbors do, the holidays would wander throughout the seasons. Then every year the holidays would be eleven days earlier than the previous year. And then, for example, Passover might occur during the winter.

Its connection to spring, our agricultural roots, and most importantly the earth would be lost. Therefore every two or three years we add a month. So Rosh Hashanah can wander between the start of September and the beginning of October but no further. Each holiday moves within a month’s window of the solar calendar.

During leap years, like this year, the double portions are separated into single portions. We therefore spend far more time reading Leviticus. So now we have to spend two weeks examining leprosy. And this is an unfortunate occurrence, to be honest.

But I am comforted by the moon.

The rabbis teach. The moon complained to God saying, “The sun is so much bigger than me. No one can even see me during the day.” God comforted the moon and said, “By you shall Israel reckon the days and years.” (Babylonian Talmud Hullin 60b)

Apparently we offer comfort to each other. Israel and the moon are joined. While the sun sustains life, the moon points to our celebrations.

The moon sustains our spirit.

Soon we will gather around our Passover seder tables. Take a moment to look outside. If it is a clear night, you will see a full moon. In fact, you will see a full moon on the first night of Passover, every year. The fourteenth of Nisan, and the fourteenth of every Hebrew month coincides with a full moon. So you will see a full moon on the first night of Sukkot and on Purim for that matter.

The moon marks our holidays. Without it we could not find our way. Without it we would be unable to wander through our celebrations.

This year especially look at the moon with a sense of pride. Although Israel’s unmanned rocket missed its lunar landing, it came very close. Some seventy years ago, when Israel’s existence seemed more hope than reality, more dream than achievement, when the state faced untold challenges, who could have even imagined that one day Israel would send a rocket into space? Who would have dared dream that in the week when Israelis once again exercised their democratic right to vote and yet again affirmed the vision of “to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem” they would send a rocket to crash into the moon?

The rabbis teach: “By you shall Israel reckon the days and years.”

At this year’s seder, get up from your tables, and look up at the moon and say, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

Next year in Jerusalem—indeed!


Thursday, April 4, 2019

(Re)Kindling the Spark

I just returned from the Reform rabbis’ annual convention. Imagine 600 rabbis in one room! Imagine the lengthy conversations. Imagine all the sermons and schmoozing. This year the convention was held in Cincinnati. It was wonderful to return to Hebrew Union College where Susie and I studied for four years. It was moving to return to the historic Plum Street Temple where we were ordained 28 years ago.

Plum Street Temple was completed in 1866. Its rabbi, Isaac Meyer Wise, founded America’s Reform movement. Isaac Meyer Wise Temple, as it is now called, is an extraordinarily beautiful sanctuary. Its architecture is a combination of Byzantine and Moorish styles that was then popular in Germany. It is meant to echo the golden age of Spanish Jewry. It was Rabbi Wise’s belief that America held a similar promise.

Will my grandchildren feel similarly?

We gathered for services on Monday morning. I was struck by countless incongruities. We sat in what was once the stronghold of classical Reform Judaism where English prayers (and German) were central, yet our prayers were marked by an abundance of Hebrew. Our singing was accompanied by guitar. We sang niggunim, wordless melodies developed by Hasidic rebbes who were an anathema to our founders. I stared at the gleaming pipe organs, whose voice once filled Reform synagogues but now stood silenced. Nineteenth century Reform leaders forbade tallis and kippah, yet virtually every rabbi wore these traditional garbs.

We read this week’s Torah reading, Tazria. It contains chapters and verses about leprosy. Leviticus is obsessed with rituals and in particular ritual cleanness. It enumerates countless details about what renders something unclean. Our movement’s first platform, written in 1885, wandered through my thoughts:
We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.
They believed the ethical should be elevated above the ritual.

I longed for new wisdom. Colleagues quoted Hasidic masters. Rabbis cited modern poets. We danced and clapped to our prayers. We often started our sessions late. The decorum and punctiliousness of our founders slipped away.

Would they recognize what they birthed?

I wish to bind the ritual to the ethical. I long for our prayers to feed our morals.

Every evening was marked by the testimony of remarkable and courageous leaders.

Roberta Kaplan, a civil rights lawyer and Amy Spitalnick, director of Integrity First for America, spoke about how they are using American law to go after the Nazis who organized the antisemitic violence in Charlottesville. Freedom of speech should not protect conspiring to do violence. We listened to Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. He offered compelling words about the need for criminal justice reform. Is the measure of a nation’s greatness discovered in how it treats those accused of breaking its laws? Alabama’s prisons accuse us of falling short. Last night we were honored to meet Jim Obergefell, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court Case legalizing same-sex marriage. It is difficult to imagine the courage he must have summoned to allow a court to judge his love. Should anyone offer judgments about another’s love?

The prophetic spirit is alive. It is part of my prayers.

There is much to repair in our world. I pray for strength.

Would Isaac Meyer Wise recognize what he founded?

I am confident. He would recognize the spark.

And that is what we must kindle—in each and every generation, again and again.

I pray for courage.


Monday, April 1, 2019

The Ghost of Bipartisanship

What follows is this past week's sermon about what I learned and felt at the AIPAC Policy Conference.

This past week I traveled to Washington DC attend the AIPAC Policy Conference. AIPAC is America’s pro-Israel lobby. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is steadfast in its bipartisanship as it lobbies in particular Congress about all manner of things beneficial to Israel. It has been crucial about gaining funding for Iron Dome. It support is critical for Israel’s defense needs. So let me offer some highlights from the conference, as well as some observations and of course a few my opinions.

On the first day, President Trump recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. This was hailed by Prime Minister Netanyahu. Let’s unpack this decision. Israel captured the Golan from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War. Prior to the war its heights served as a nemesis to Israel given that Syrian soldiers shelled Israeli kibbutzim from there. In addition it served as a buffer to absorb Syria’s attack during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In an age of missiles some have argued that the heights are no longer important as a strategic asset. And there were occasional discussions about trading the territory for peace with Syria. Nonetheless the vast majority of Israelis never favored such an idea.

The Golan is some of the best, and most beautiful, hiking in all of Israel. There water flows from the heights, sometimes cascading down waterfalls, which are extraordinary to swim in. The water eventually makes its way to the Kinneret—the Sea of Galilee. Water that is needed for much of Israel’s population starts its journey in the Golan. For decades Israel has been sovereign over the territory. The world of course did not recognize this but Israel’s sovereignty was long an established fact. Especially in recent years, after the collapse of Syria and given the ongoing civil war there, no one entertained the idea of relinquishing control over the Golan Heights.

President Trump’s decision was a recognition of what was in fact the case. Some might argue that it was ill-timed or that its only purpose was to help Bibi win the election, and while this may be true, the decision was rather inconsequential. Perhaps you can argue that it emboldened Israel’s right wingers who see in this the beginnings of their desire to annex the West Bank. Maybe. But Israelis don’t lump these territories together. The Golan and the West Bank are not the same. Perhaps the decision was a finger in the eye of Arab states, like Saudi Arabia, who are drawing closer to Israel. Again maybe. Don’t read too much into this decision. There are far greater things to get worked up about.

AIPAC also advocated for the US to move its embassy to Jerusalem. Again the Trump administration obliged. This decision was far more consequential. There is good and bad about the embassy move. First the good. Israel should get to decide where its capital is. It has always been in Jerusalem. It’s not in East Jerusalem, the territory captured from the Jordanians in 1967. It’s in West Jerusalem. That’s where the Knesset is. Too many, most especially Palestinian leaders, deny the historic connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. Jerusalem is not just any city for us. Too many speak about Zionism and the State of Israel as if it is some European colonial implant in the Arab Middle East. It is not. Jerusalem exemplifies our return to Zion. For years US presidents refused to officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move our embassy there. President Trump finally did this and he received a lot of adulation and praise from the 18,000 AIPAC attendees for this decision. Again the vast majority of Israelis are also grateful. Most Israelis just want to live in a state like all other states with a capital city that is not deemed illegitimate by world leaders.

Still there are worries about the embassy move. Palestinians hope for the capital of their state to be in Jerusalem as well. They also claim this city as their own. For those who favor the two state solution and for those who believe that a Palestinian state living in peace alongside the State of Israel is the best thing for Israel, and this is by the way AIPAC’s official position, Trump’s decision seemed to push this reality farther away. You can argue that moving the embassy to Jerusalem will force Palestinian leaders to come to terms with the reality of Israel and that this reality is here to stay and not going anywhere. That is now my hope. My fear however is that this decision, as much as I loved it in my Jewish kishkes, will cause those on both sides who say this place is only mine to become even more intransigent. We have to figure out how to share parts of the land with our Palestinian brethren so that we can find some measure of peace.

I admit that seems like a far off dream. Given that this week Hamas fired rockets from Gaza into Tel Aviv peace seems more like a delusion. Then again Gaza is not the West Bank and Hamas is not the Palestinian Authority. Israelis understand these distinctions. Hamas aims to destroy Israel. It rules over Gaza with an iron hand. It kills its own people when they protest, a recent fact that went largely unreported. A rocket fell on a family’s home. Children were injured. Children were targeted. Netanyahu hurried back to Jerusalem and gave instead a video address to the conference attendees. The IDF called up reserves. The air force struck at Hamas leaders. Why? What was different this time? Hamas has fired rockets before. It was because the rocket traveled farther and this may be the more important point, it somehow evaded Iron Dome. The worry is that this could represent a technological breakthrough.

And this cannot stand. There should be no debate about this fact. Israelis should be free to live in safety and security. And their state has every right to safeguard its citizens’ safety and security.

Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s main rival in the coming elections, began his speech by praising Bibi’s decision to return to Israel. It is true that the poverty and despair in Gaza is overwhelming. It is also true that Hamas is largely responsible for perpetuating these conditions. Still I continue to say, something has to be done for ordinary Gazans if for no other reason than to bring some measure of quiet along Israel’s southern border.

Gantz also spoke to diaspora Jews. He spoke about the rights of Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel. He said the Western Wall is big enough for all of us. This is something where Netanyahu has abandoned us. The lack of recognition of other streams of Judaism in the Jewish state is a tragic injustice. Too many Reform Jews like ourselves are made to feel second class in Israel. Why should we not be able to pray exactly as we do here in the Jewish state? It makes no sense. Politics should no longer upend making progress towards a greater sense of Jewish pluralism in the State of Israel.

I thought Gantz’s speech was the best of the conference. His most powerful point was one about unity. He spoke about that being our secret weapon. This is what he argued has enabled Israel to survive. Unity is also what drives AIPAC. Democrats and Republicans are meant to be united in their support for Israel. And this brings me to my greatest worry and fear. Our unity is unraveling. This was by far the most troubling and upsetting take away from the conference. The Democrats who spoke appeared to be playing defense and said in effect, don’t worry, we still love Israel. Republicans were on offense, saying those guys don’t really love Israel. We love Israel the best. Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat this development should be extraordinarily troubling.

The bipartisanship that is the cornerstone of AIPAC’s mission is slipping away. This was so evident when Meghan McCain, Senator John McCains’ daughter, and Senator Joe Lieberman took the stage. This is where we are at? I thought. We have to conjure up the ghost of John McCain to demonstrate bipartisanship. We have to bring out his good friend and Democrat, and who also should have been his running mate, to say look how bipartisan we are. This is the best, and perhaps only way we say, look a Republican and Democrat can stand on the stage together and profess their love and commitment to Israel. Our unity is slipping away.

So let me say this in closing. To Democrats I say loving Israel and making excuses for antisemites cannot go hand in hand. To Republicans I say loving Israel is not necessarily the same as loving Bibi and his vision for Israel. We better figure out how to hold on to all of these things at the same time because what has served the alliance between the United States and Israel so well for so long is that it has always transcended Republican and Democrat. Let’s figure out some measure of unity for Israel’s sake and perhaps for ours as well.